Sunday, December 4, 2011

“ We are all fools. Let’s all go home."

Philip Gibbs was dispatched to the Western front during the First World war as an official war correspondent and in the process he became a novelist. He consciously decided to report the truth about the great war and not shy behind cheap patriotic articles and newspaper propaganda sensationalism. Soon enough, he found out that this was not acceptable by the establishment. The War Office in London decided to intervene and 'manage' popular reporting of the war. Censorship became widespread and Gibbs was denied permission to remain on the Western Front. Stubbornly refusing to return, Gibbs was duly arrested and sent home. This small excerpt from his book “The Realities of War”, published after the armistice, could have the title “The Devil’s trap”:       

“... That thought of war's futility inspired an episode which was narrated throughout the army in that winter of '15, and led to curious conversations in dugouts and billets. Above a German front-line trench appeared a plank on which, in big letters, was scrawled these words:

"The English are fools."

"Not such bloody fools as all that!" said a sergeant, and in a few minutes the plank was smashed to splinters by rifle-fire.

Another plank appeared, with other words:

"The French are fools."

Loyalty to our allies caused the destruction of that board.

A third plank was put up:

"We're all fools. Let's all go home."

That board was also shot to pieces, but the message caused some laughter, and men repeating it said: "There's a deal of truth in those words. Why should this go on? What's it all about? Let the old men who made this war come and fight it out among themselves, at Hooge. The fighting-men have no real quarrel with one another. We all want to go home to our wives and our work."

But neither side was prepared to "go home" first. Each side was in a trap--a devil's trap from which there was no escape. Loyalty to their own side, discipline, with the death penalty behind it, spell words of old tradition, obedience to the laws of war or to the caste which ruled them, all the moral and spiritual propaganda handed out by pastors, newspapers, generals, staff-officers, old men at home, exalted women, female furies, a deep and simple love for England and Germany, pride of manhood, fear of cowardice--a thousand complexities of thought and sentiment prevented men, on both sides, from breaking the net of fate in which they were entangled, and revolting against that mutual, unceasing massacre, by a rising from the trenches with a shout of, "We're all fools! . . . Let's all go home!”..."

Polly Jean Harvey has come up with a stunning album inspired by the above folly of armed conflict from the First world war to Afghanistan and Iraq. Taking a huge risk and changing musical direction, she even changed her vocal style to suit the material. What a far cry this is from all the “censored” music being produced these days. Maybe she should also be arrested... 

Listen to:

P.J.Harvey - Let England shake

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